The visibility of te reo

What message does language use in public spaces say about the role of te reo Maori in NZ?

This is a question that linguistic landscape research can provide an answer to. This is the study of language use on signs in public spaces, and has been touched on in other posts, including one about another official language in NZ, NZ Sign Language. A key idea in linguistic landscape research is that the languages used in public spaces reflect the languages used in the community.

You might think that with the social changes that have taken place over recent decades, and the evidence of an increasing presence of Maori words in NZ English, there would be greater visibility of te reo in public.

But you’d be wrong. In the examination of one linguistic landscape, Maori had a relatively slight presence. There were no signs solely in Maori. There were no bilingual signs, with the same message provided in both languages.

The message that the linguistic landscape conveyed is, English only spoken here.

Certainly there were multimodal elements in the landscape that seemed to reference biculturalism, if not bilingualism. These can be seen in the photo that heads this post … the evocation of Maori design in the representations of pounamu ­– I emphasise that word because the sign producer here has opted for jade rather than the Maori word or the more usual NZ term, greenstone. Such decisions remind us of how considerations of audience affect language use in public spaces.

There remains the question of whether a different linguistic landscape would have painted a significantly different picture. There hasn’t been a lot of linguistic landscape research in NZ but looking at what there is the answer, it seems, is no.


John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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